A Racy Philosophy Lesson on Kant’s Aesthetics by Alain de Botton’s “School of Life”

For the past two decades, Alain de Botton has refined his knack for popularizing philosophical and literary ideas. In 1997, he published his bestseller, How Proust Can Change Your Life. Next came his six-part video series, A Guide to Happinesswhere de Botton showed how thinkers like Montaigne, Seneca and Schopenhauer can help you grapple with timeless questions — like dealing with anger, managing your love life, or maintaining your self-esteem. And, by 2008, we find Alain opening The School of Life, a London-based operation that has as its tagline “good ideas for everyday life.”

The School of Life offers classes, publishes books, makes films, and now produces YouTube videos, some of which we’ve featured here before. The School’s latest release won’t go unnoticed. A three minute lesson on Kant’s aesthetics, the video features an eroticized teacher talking quickly and authoritatively in German about difficult aspects relating to Kant’s philosophy. Things get meta pretty quickly, and soon the distracting camera work starts making Kant’s very point about the nature of the subjective. The charged imagery is not, in other words, entirely gratuitous — but it’s certainly pretty unconventional, and whether it’s effective, I guess that’s up for debate. Next, up Nietzsche, we’re told.

If you would like some deeper introductions to Kant’s philosophy, please see our list of 130 Free Online Philosophy Courses. Kant’s Critique of Judgment appears in our collection, 135 Free Philosophy eBooks.

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The Story of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Released 50 Years Ago This Month

What can I add to the chorus of voices in praise of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Recorded in December of 1964 and released fifty years ago this month, the album has gone on to achieve cult status—literally inspiring a church founded in Coltrane’s name—as one of the finest works of jazz or any other form of music. It cemented Coltrane’s name in the pantheon of great composers, and re-invented religious music for a secular age. Composed as a hymn of praise and gratitude, “the bizarre suite of four movements,” wrote NPR’s Arun Rath last year, “communicated a profound spiritual and philosophical message.” That message is articulated explicitly by Coltrane in the album’s liner notes as “a humble offering to Him,” the deity he experienced in a 1957 “spiritual awakening” that “lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”

These phrases speak the language of recovery, and Coltrane found God through a program of recovery from heroin addiction. Like so many who have embraced faith after addiction, Coltrane’s devotion was ardent, but neither dogmatic nor judgmental. He “refused to commit to a single religion,” writes Rath, “His idea of God couldn’t be contained by any doctrine. But with his saxophone, and with his band, he could preach.” That he did, religiously, no pun intended. Before the recording of A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s classic quartet—including drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison—toured the U.S. for four years. As the BBC documentary above informs us, “The group’s appetite for performance was ferocious.” They played “two gigs a day, six nights a week, taking only short breaks in the studio to record material for more than fifteen increasingly critically acclaimed albums.”

By the time the group recorded A Love Supreme, they had developed “an amazing unspoken communication.” Tyner recalled the album as “a culmination and natural extension of chemistry honed through years of playing together live.” (Despite all that, they would only perform the suite of songs live once, in Antibes, France, resulting in a live album and some fragmentary film of the event.) Narrated by Jez Nelson, the 2004 radio documentary (up top) presents interviews with Tyner, Jones, modernist composer Steve Reich, Coltrane’s wife Alice, and others, in-between passages of Coltrane’s music, including his major breakout hit recording of “My Favorite Things.”

Among the many tributes to the album’s inspiring, transcendent genius, Coltrane scholar Ashley Kahn offers a very down-to-earth assessment of A Love Supreme’s importance: “[Coltrane] was not a prodigy. He was someone who worked very, very, very hard at his craft, and he showed us, and he shows musicians still, that it is possible.” Whether we attribute Coltrane’s achievements to divine inspiration, incredibly hard work, or some combination of the two, the proof of his devotion stands the test of fifty years, and fifty years from now, I suspect we’ll say much the same.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Musical Career of David Bowie in One Minute … and One Continuous Take

We like to keep things succinct around here. So behold the many ch-ch-changes of David Bowie, filmed in one minute, and in one continuous take. And when you’re done, check out 50 Years of Changing David Bowie Hair Styles in One Animated GIF. More Bowie material from the OC archive awaits you below.

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Wes Anderson Likes the Color Red (and Yellow)

Red seems to be a magnet for angry bulls and great directors. After all, it’s the color that seems to stand out more than any other. Yasujiro Ozu, for one, made the jump to color movies very reluctantly late in his career and promptly became obsessed with the color red. His production team kept a box on set of small red household things – a matchbox, an umbrella, a teakettle – which he used to place in the background of just about every shot. Jean-Luc Godard famously bathed Brigitte Bardot’s backside in red light for his first color film Contempt. When critics complained that his feature, Pierrot le Fou, was too bloody, he quipped, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” And from HAL 9000’s unforgiving electronic eye in 2001 to the buckets of blood pouring out of the elevator from hell in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick built some of his most memorable scenes around the color red.

Editor and designer Rishi Kaneria, who seems to be making a career out of pointing out the color choices of auteurs, has just released a video called “Red & Yellow: A Wes Anderson Supercut” that squarely places Wes Anderson among the ranks of cinema’s great crimson-loving stylists – from Ben Stiller’s sweats in The Royal Tenenbaums to the luxurious carpets of his latest effort The Grand Budapest Hotel. As you might gather from the title of Kaneria’s short, Anderson is also a fan of the color yellow too. You can watch the video above. And you can watch Kaneria’s look into Kubrick’s use of red below.

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Watch Wes Anderson’s Charming New Short Film, Castello Cavalcanti, Starring Jason Schwartzman

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Glorious Early 20th-Century Japanese Ads for Beer, Smokes & Sake (1902-1954)

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Earlier this month, we featured advertisements from Japan’s prewar Art Deco golden age, a period that shows off one facet of the country’s rich graphic history. While all forms of Japanese design remain compelling today, any time or place would be hard pressed to compete with the world of Japan’s pre-war print advertising. It has, especially for the modern Westerner, not just a visual novelty but a commercial novelty as well: as often as not, surviving examples glorify now-restricted addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco.

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At Pink Tentacle (a completely safe-for-work page, believe it or not), you can find a roundup of Japanese print advertisements for products that tap into just such vices. Japan opened up to the world in a big way in the mid-to-late 19th century, and the country’s acceptance (and subsequent Japanification) of all things foreign kept chugging along right up until the Second World War. At the top, we have an appealing example of this internationalism at work in the service of Sakura Beer in the late 1920s. The 1902 ad just above depicts not just the globe but a smoking Pegasus astride it in the name of Peacock cigarettes.

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When the tone of Japanese life got militaristic in the 1930s, so did the tone of Japanese ads. The 1937 poster just above proclaims “Defense for Country, Tobacco for Society,” a message brought to you by the South Kyoto Tobacco Sellers’ Union. Below, the kind of Japanese maiden prewar graphic design always rendered so well appears in a different, more outwardly patriotic, and much more naval form.

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It goes without saying that most of these ads’ designers geared them toward the eyes of the Japanese — most, but not all. After the war, during the United States’ occupation of the country, there appeared print announcements in this same stylistic vein urging GIs and other American military personnel to keep on their best commercial behavior. Take, for instance, these words the straightforwardly named Japan Monopoly Corporation placed beside this archetypically courtly but uncharacteristically stern traditional lady in 1954:

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A valiant effort, but from the stories I’ve heard of the occupation, no amount of graphic design could’ve shut down that particular black market. And finally, no look back at vintage Japanese ads would be complete without including one advertisement for sake. The ad below is for Zuigan sake, created in 1934.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Kids Orchestra Plays Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”

The Louisville Leopard Percussionists — they’re a performing ensemble made up of 60 students, all between the ages of 7 and 14, from schools around the Louisville, Kentucky area. Each musician plays several instruments, such as the marimbas, xylophone, vibraphone, drum set, timbales, congas, bongos and piano. And they can rock with the best of them. Perhaps you’ve seen a viral video of the young percussionists playing Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which Jimmy Page called “too good not to share” on his Facebook page.

If your inner 16-year-old is asking “what about Ozzy?,” well then, we’ve got you covered. Above you can watch The Fabulous Leopard Percussionists rehearsing a version of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” the heavy metal classic from 1980. Founded in 1993 by the elementary school teacher Diane Downs, the ensemble has certainly explored other musical forms too. Here, you can see them perform Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” at the International Association of Jazz Educators’ concert in New York City. And Latin-inspired versions of Low Rider/Oye Como Va. Not a bad way to start your day, I must say.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.

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Hunter S. Thompson, Existentialist Life Coach, Gives Tips for Finding Meaning in Life

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Image by Steve Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons

At first blush, Hunter S. Thompson might be the last person you would want to ask for advice. After all, his daily routine involved copious amounts of cocaine, LSD and Chivas Regal. He once raked a neighbor’s house with gunfire. And he once almost accidentally blew up Johnny Depp. Yet beneath his gonzo persona lay a man who thought deeply and often about the meaning of it all. He was someone who spent a lifetime staring into the abyss.

So in 1958, before he became a counter-culture icon, before he even started writing professionally, Thompson wrote a long letter about some of the big questions in life to his friend, Hume Logan, who was in the throes of an existential crisis.

While the first couple of paragraphs warns against the dangers of seeking advice, Hunter then expounds at length on some deep, and surprisingly level-headed truths. Below are a few pearls of wisdom:

  • Whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this!
  • You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.)
  • To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. We do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
  • Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.
  • Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

The letter was published in the 2013 book, Letters of Note. You can read it in its entirety below.

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend,
Hunter

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Michel Gondry’s Finest Music Videos for Björk, Radiohead & More: The Last of the Music Video Gods

We didn’t realize it at the time, but Michel Gondry was one of the last great music video directors, creating mini-epics just before the music industry collapsed, budgets disappeared, and now your cousin with a Canon 7D is following his friend’s band around in a field and putting *that* up on Vimeo. Maybe Gondry too saw the writing on the wall, because, by the beginning of the ‘aughts, he was inching his way into Hollywood, first with Human Nature and then striking paydirt with the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the best French films ever made that wasn’t French (apart from the director).

But in the twilight of music videos, Gondry’s best work combined new technology with the homemade, DIY aesthetic. His interest in fractals, mathematics, and logical paradoxes and loops went into the mix. As did his interest in the machinery and artifice of movie making. And as did his romantic, autobiographical side. What follows is a small selection of some of his best, most complex music videos.




Gondry directed several videos for Björk, starting with “Human Behavior,” her first solo single, but 1997’s “Bachelorette” (top) goes beyond playful into heartbreaking. A riff on an infinitely recursive poem, a story that is about the telling of itself, the video finds Björk discovering a book in the woods that begins to write itself. As she finds a publisher, gains success, and sees the book turned into a musical, the story is told again, and then again, a play within a play within a play. But each version is analog, not digital, and loses something in the process, and the forest creeps back in to claim its work.

Similarly, in this video for The Chemical Brothers’ song “Let Forever Be” (1999) Gondry sets up two worlds, one on digital video, where our heroine attempts to wake up and go to work at a department store; and another shot on film, where the girl’s numerous doppelgängers parody her struggle and her grip on sanity through choreographed dance numbers. This illustrates a familiar Gondry equation: If A and B, then A+B equals freakout madness time. The colorbars of video production loom nearby to further the idea of irreality, and a cheesy VideoToaster-style effect rescues us at the end.

As far as we know, Radiohead’s “Knives Out” (2001) has nothing to do with hospitals, but Gondry took this cannibalistic song and made one of his most personal videos. Here Thom Yorke stands in for the director, as Gondry offers a mea culpa about a relationship that went past its expiration date, when his girlfriend developed an illness and he couldn’t bear to break up with her. All of that is laid out, in sad, fever-dream detail, in this single-take video that features a lot of his obsessions: toys, television, loops, and a shuffling of symbols and motifs. Look for Gondry’s son briefly playing on the floor.

And finally:

Not to go out with a sour note, here’s Gondry’s adventurous 1994 video for the swallowed-by-history Lucas. “Lucas with the Lid Off” is one of Gondry’s first one-take masterpieces that shows how the magic is made while still being magical. (The current kings of single-take music videos, OK Go, owe their success to Gondry.) It’s also a video that tries to give each sampled loop its own element within the video, looking forward to his work for Daft Punk (“Around the World”) and The Chemical Brothers (“Star Guitar”).

Gondry continues to make videos–he made one last year for Metronomy’s “Love Letters,” but his attention is really elsewhere. Enjoy these gems from his classic era.

Note: Gondry’s 1988 short animated film, Jazzmosphere, an exploration of jazz and images, has been added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills and/or watch his films here.

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